Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How Does a Pie Thrown in the Face Sound?

Is it a thwack or more of a splat? You can decide for yourself if you come to the Hoover Archives and listen to the sound recording of Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling speaking at the Commonwealth Club on June 21, 2001, or listen to it on the club's website. The sound of a protester throwing a pie at Skilling, and the mild chaos that followed, is audible in the first few minutes of the recording.

I think about why sound recordings--and other audiovisual (AV) materials--are important for historical research; this recording gets at part of the answer. The club's transcript of the event does not mention the pie. Even if it did, does reading about it carry the same impact as hearing it happen? I don't think so. There's a visceral, emotional charge connected to sound and video that adds complex dimensions missing from the written word.

This is why, Martin and Annelise Anderson, the authors of Reagan, in His Own Hand, which focuses on Ronald Reagan's writings, also produced Reagan, in His Own Voice, an audiobook of his radio addresses. Listening to Reagan reveals aspects missed when simply reading his words on the page. Recordings bring personalities alive, adding nuanced layers to political messages and persuasive art.

The Culture and Emotion Research Laboratory in the Psychology Department at San Francisco State University specializes in analyzing the emotional content of videos. One of its projects involves analyzing videos of speeches given by leaders of nation- states or ideologically motivated groups that are at odds with other nations or groups that eventually engage in either acts of aggression or nonviolent resistance. Leaders such as Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, George W. Bush, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama are on its list.

Many researchers, however, are reluctant to use AV materials, thinking it takes too much time to listen to or watch a recording. They also find it difficult to determine whether a recording will be useful, whereas they can quickly survey textual documents to evaluate their content. Nor were they trained to use AV materials in their graduate programs. When I ask professors about this, they usually acknowledge their own avoidance of AV materials. They do, however, see their successors coming up the ranks; this new cohort, they tell me, is media- savvy and comfortable analyzing AV materials as historical evidence. For them, we've got a good hundred thousand sound recordings and thousands of videos.

Reagan In His Own Voice, available through Amazon.com and in the Hoover Archives.

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